Real choices versus trivial choices

By Dogtown Commoner | Posted at 3:06 pm, September 22nd, 2007 | Topic: environment, cities, economics

I’m starting to feel like a broken record on this issue, but today is World Carfree Day, and yesterday the LA Times reported on a new report by the Urban Land Institute pointing out the relatively minor impact of incremental improvements in things like fuel efficiency, compared to larger choices about where to live, how much to drive, and so on:

The report, “Growing Cooler: Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change,” analyzed scores of academic studies and concluded that compact development — mixing housing and businesses in denser patterns, with walkable neighborhoods — could do as much to lower emissions as many of the climate policies now promoted by state and national politicians.

Up to now, climate policy has primarily focused on such things as higher fuel economy for cars and trucks, cleaner fuels, greener building standards, lower power plant emissions, and international treaties. But a growing consensus of experts is also homing in on the everyday zoning decisions of local officials and county planners.

Since 1980, the number of miles Americans drive has risen three times faster than the population and almost twice as fast as vehicle registrations. And it is getting worse: The U.S. Department of Energy projects that between 2005 and 2030, driving will increase 59%, far outpacing an estimated national population growth of 23%.

While dramatic lifestyle changes can do much more than small technological improvements to reduce fossil fuel use and carbon emissions, policymakers and many environmentalists often focus on improving automobile fuel efficiency, encouraging the use of low-energy lightbulbs, and other consumer-oriented choices that the public can adopt with little sacrifice. This results in the jarring disconnect that we get in, for example, An Inconvenient Truth, when Al Gore spends over an hour detailing the major disruptions to human civilization that are likely to occur if global warming proceeds, then ends the movie with a list of mostly small suggestions like turning one’s thermostat up or down by 2 degrees, and keeping one’s car tires properly inflated.

After the maps showing large chunks of densely populated land being submerged by rising oceans, Gore’s suggested actions seem laughable in their smallness, but one can understand his decision to focus on small-scale solutions instead of revolutionary changes to the way most of us live. People are attached to their comfortable, convenient lifestyles, and this passage from the LA Times article shows what environmentalists are up against:

The California Chamber of Commerce and the California Building Industry Assn. declined to comment on the report, but James Burling, litigation director for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative group that has battled environmentalists over land-use issues, dismissed “the latest anti-sprawl crusade based on global warming” as “no different from every other anti-sprawl campaign from Roman times to the present.”

“So long as people ardently desire to live and raise children in detached homes with a bit of lawn, there is virtually nothing that government bureaucrats can do that will thwart that,” he said.

Reading quotes like that probably instills terror in the minds of politicians, and their fear of asking people for real sacrifices at the gas pump or the tollbooth is understandable. So it’s easy to see why everyone wants to focus on technological improvements and consumer choice rather than financial sacrifices or lifestyle changes, but that emphasis shouldn’t fool us into forgetting that we already have a pretty good understanding of what can be done to stop human-caused global warming.

We also shouldn’t forget that lifestyle changes may be inevitable, as the costs — both financial and environmental — of energy increase. The real question may be whether we will make the changes voluntarily and with forethought, or involuntarily, as our supply of cheap oil starts to run out and living “in detached homes with a bit of lawn” 40 miles from one’s office stops being economically feasible. Predictions vary about how easily we can adapt to new circumstances, and how severe the disruptions may be, but if the industrialized world does not make some difficult choices now, then soon we may live in a world whether the choice between incandescent and fluorescent lightbulbs is the least of our worries.